The third movement gives us a glimpse of heaven in a musical form. (Photo by M. Sarfaraz, via Wikimedia Commons.)









Where We’ve Been: Movement I – Child-like ice-skating. Movement II – the creepy violin of death.

Mahler wrote a few heart-stoppingly beautiful slow movements. (The Mahler 5 fourth movement is probably the most famous.) In my opinion, this one is his second-most beautiful. (You can wait and find out which I think is the most beautiful.) All these slow movements have in common that they’re never perfectly serene all the way through – there are clouds and dark patches – but ultimately beauty and love win. This plays out in this one by an alternation between a major key section (A) and a minor key section (B), which are connected together by a common rhythm. (If you need a reminder on major and minor, check out this old post.)

The overall idea with the movement is the idea of heaven and rest contrasted with the turmoil of this life. If you remember, this symphony is heading towards a song where a child describes heaven. So we’ve had fairly childlike music in the first two movements. But it’s in this second-last movement (rather than the last movement where you would expect it), that Mahler gives us a serious unfiltered look at heaven, and temporarily drops the childlike guise. (But it does make an appearance or two throughout the movement.)

A Section
(0:00) Theme A in the strings. You can play it as slow as you want and it still sounds gorgeous. Starts in the low strings and works its way up. I’ve often suggested it as a wedding processional piece but nobody has taken my advice yet. (But, hey, if you’re reading this and about to get married, why not consider it?)

(1:17) Violins come in. Even more amazing. Cannot explain why this music is so tear-inducing. I read somewhere a description of this movement that described it as an Abgesang (swan song, farewell song), and I would believe that.

(1:57) Most beautiful oboe solo ever. At least, who can remember any other oboe music while listening to this bit?

(3:00) High strings. For me, the world has just stood still. However, this might be a good time to point out what the cellos and basses are doing. Hear that “Dum-dum. Da-dum-dum”? (It’s a very slow march rhythm.)  It’s going to become a motif of its own as the movement progresses.

(4:11) The rhythm is more prominent now. Flute chords to close out this section.

B Section
(5:02) Theme B in the minor key, starting on the oboe. (Notice the underlying rhythm motif is the same as in Theme A.) It sounds like a mini-tragedy …

(6:12) … and then plunges into a gloomy oboe-led solo, which transfers to the flute. Easily the most serious and intense music in the symphony so far.

(7:49) Fragile violin solo over the top of the rhythm motif.

A Section
(8:21) It’s back to the major key for the A section again, but you’ll notice that it is now in the same gentle, playful style as the 1st movement.

B Section
(10:33) Back to the plaintive woodwind world of Theme B. Gloomy climax at (11:50). Dies down then builds up to another one (12:43). Hugely tragic. Dies out again.

A Section
(13:41) Back to Section A, played super-quietly on the low strings.

(14:27) Now a bit more chirpy, with some little kiddy squeals in there. It’s quite astonishing that we can have such innocent music within minutes of the tragedy of that last B section. Ends ups with a sort of running race at (15:17), followed by a big horn slow-down.

(15:50) Then we’re back to the sound world of the opening. Beautiful high strings, glorious melody and delicate counterpoint (different melodies layered on top of one another). It sounds much more poignant this side of the minor key stuff.

(17:14) Amazing moment at the end where everything drops away to the Most. Beautiful. Chords. In. The. World.

(18:01) Then, out of the blue … a MASSIVE break-through by the brass (as in, rather than transition into the brass section, they literally break through the existing quietness). Hear the rhythm motif on the timpani as well?

(18:45) From here on, it’s all just one big extended fade-out, so that the mood can be set for the final movement.

I really like this movement, but what did you think of it?

3 thoughts on “The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Symphony No 4: Movement III

  1. I was wondering whether or not I was going to tell you that I found this boring, when I remembered that I should probably listen again through the fancy speakers before casting any judgement. I was blown away (again) by the difference in experience. Such a huge difference!

    I noticed the repetitions during Theme B of what sounded like “Tomorrow, tomorrow, I love ya, tomorrow,” as heard in the musical Annie. (I know, it all comes back to musicals for me.)

    The oboe is lovely, the strings are hypnotizing, and I love the way that Mahler transitions from the exciting to the serene. This is my new go-to music for a trip to the dentist, and all other times that I want to get into the relaxation zone.

    1. It is one of those distinctive things about classical music that the quality of the listening experience can make such a difference to how you hear it. Pop music seems to survive cranked through almost any type of speaker, but there are all sorts of nuances and moments that get lost with orchestral music.

      If you do get to hear Mahler live, you’ll notice all sorts of details again that you never notice on any recording.

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